It’s that time of the year when the literary pages are awash with lists of the best books of 2018. By all accounts, this has been a particularly remarkable year, and the copious lists that are filling the pages, particularly of the British and American papers, offer even the most constant of readers enough suggestions to catch up on over the holidays. But these summaries of a reading year are necessarily well-considered performances, are they not? It’s not just that the list-makers appear conscious that their recommendations must project the depth and breadth of their reading selves, but also that they seem overly burdened by the responsibility of summarising the books of the year to cater to every type of deep reader — something for everyone.
A good guide to making lists
It is perhaps a reminder that list-making is not a task to be undertaken casually, that it entails more homework than is conveyed by the easy-breezy manner of most such recaps. And as we non-specialists mark 2018’s impending close, and supplement lists of our own admittedly more limited and scattered reading with lists of books to be read, a good guide can be found in a fat volume, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, by James Mustich. As Mustich, an American bookseller with years of experience going back to 1986, set out making this list, he was conscious that “any exercise in curation provokes questions of discernment, epistemology, and even philosophy that can easily lead to befuddlement, and in the case of books, since they are carriers of such varied knowledge in themselves, it can be paralysing.”
Coming up with the list took him 14 years, and the biggest step to getting it done was to determine on what basis to include and exclude books. The answer, he says, came from a reference by Edmund Wilson to “the miscellaneous learning of the bookstore, unorganised by any larger purpose, the undisciplined undirected curiosity of the indolent lover of reading”. And Mustich had his formula: “What if I had a bookstore that could hold only 1,000 volumes.” Years of helping stock bookstores and running a mail order catalogue called “A Common Reader” equipped him for the exercise, and he set about putting together a collection of 1,000 for “any reading inclination”.
So there’s something for every kind of reader — from Aeschylus to Carolyn Keene (“author” of the Nancy Drew books, that were in fact written by a group of writers), from religious texts to Elena Ferrante’s 21st century bestsellers, from Nobel-winning Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl to Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, from The Baburnama to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The list, says Mustich, is an “invitation to conversation — even a merry argument”. And going through the list, with long-ish write-ups on each book, and with further recommendation of similar books to try appended to each title (not part of the 1,000 books of the title), it comes as little surprise that it’s considerably weighted towards the Anglo-American canon. There’s Henry Adams, for instance, but not Jawaharlal Nehru. There’s plenty of contemporary Indian writing, including Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai and Vikram Seth, but no R.K. Narayan.
And therein lies the clue on how to compile our own lists — to have our memories jogged, to take the titles we want from existing lists, and add to them personal favourites we find excluded.
Lists like Mustich’s also force us to appraise the scope of our reading. Are we reading thrillers to the exclusion of literary non-fiction? Are we reading fiction in plenty, but embarrassingly little on politics and the economy? Or vice versa? Have we lost sight of the books from our childhood that shaped us? Are we keeping up with new forms of story-telling, from Alexievich’s “history of emotions” to Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels? Are we reading enough on science?
The defining books
It also asks us how to appraise the oeuvre of a particular writer. Mustich, for instance, has multiple books by writers such as Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky, but just the one each by Margaret Atwood (Cat’s Eye), V.S. Naipaul (A House for Mr Biswas) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). I was in perfect agreement with what he considered Haruki Murakami’s standout novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but can see why many would not agree.
Mustich’s appraisal, of course, covers a lifetime of reading as well as such vast terrain that it is difficult to think of anyone who’s read all 1,000 books, or would even be advised to read them all. But his organising principle is tempting: to construct in our minds a miniature bookstore of books published in 2018.